A Face in the Crowd is the story of a man who becomes a rich and popular television star. He follows his ratings closely, he gives the people around him nicknames, he is desperate to be loved, and he craves attention. He eventually decides to use his popularity in politics.
Sound familiar? A Face in the Crowd is really the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, the fictional main character of the film, and more than sixty-three years later, his story is eerily familiar.
The story starts in Pickett, Arkansas. A car labeled KGRK rides past the town square, where men are playing checkers. Roving radio reporter Marcia Jeffries has arrived to interview prisoners in the local jail for the radio program “A Face in the Crowd.” She describes her radio station as “the voice of northeast Arkansas.”
Larry Rhodes agrees to sing and play the guitar for Jeffries’s radio program if the sheriff will let him out of jail the following morning. Rhodes is supposed to be in jail for a week for being drunk and disorderly. Jeffries overhears another prisoner call Rhodes by his nickname Lonesome, so she introduces him to her listeners as Lonesome Rhodes. She likes him enough to convince her uncle, the owner of the radio station, to put him on a morning show.
Rhodes’s off-the-cuff, folksy manner is a hit with radio listeners. Women in particular like his observations about how hard they work. They send in fan mail and homemade pies. Local businesses want to increase their radio advertising. Rhodes is popular—and thus he is good for business.
Lonesome Rhodes eventually leaves Pickett, Arkansas, for Memphis, Tennessee, to appear on television. He has a new agent, Joey DePalma, who, like many others, sees profit in Rhodes. On the train about to leave Pickett, Lonesome confides to Marcia, who is accompanying him to Memphis, that he is glad to put the town of Pickett behind him (“I’m glad to shake that dump”), while its residents crowd the train station and cheer him for his send-off. Marcia is shocked by his attitude toward the town and his fans, people who have been sending him letters and pies. But Lonesome smooths it over by saying that Marcia should know by now that he says a lot of things he doesn’t mean. It’s a preview of what’s to come.
(This blog post about A Face in the Crowd contains spoilers, even if you have been following politics since the last presidential campaign.)
In Memphis, Lonesome Rhodes and Marcia Jeffries meet Mel Miller, who works as a writer at the television station. He is the exact opposite of Rhodes. He and Jeffries become friends, but Marcia doesn’t give Mel another romantic thought: She is irresistibly drawn to Rhodes.
The next stop for Lonesome Rhodes is New York City, courtesy of Joey DePalma. Rhodes makes a loud and boisterous entrance at an advertising agency in New York. The advertising agency has been hired by General Haynesworth to sell his company’s latest product, Vitajex tablets. The tablets have nothing of substance in their list of ingredients (a chemist is on hand with a pie chart to declare this at the meeting), but the objective is to sell them as energy tablets. Rhodes suggests that they change the color from white to yellow—because yellow is the color of sunshine and energy—and that the tablets should be advertised as a cure for male impotence. His ability to create enthusiasm based on nothing at best—and on lies at worst—catches on, and he becomes the spokesperson for Vitajex.
The executives at the Madison Avenue advertising company are not happy with Rhodes’s approach to the ads once he appears on air. He never follows their copy (they have researched the effect of certain words on their target audience carefully), he ad libs in front of the camera, and he is a risk because he is uncooperative and unpredictable. He is bucking the status quo and established practice, and he is antagonizing the media establishment in general. But not his audience. The people seem to love him whatever he does and wherever he goes.
General Haynesworth invites Lonesome Rhodes to his home to introduce him to Senator Worthingon Fuller. Haynesworth wants Fuller to be the next president of the United States. Marcia Jeffries points out that Fuller is a conservative isolationist. Haynesworth’s response is that only the left-wing socialist press in New York City describes Fuller that way. He dismisses her and addresses Rhodes:
• General Haynesworth: “Young man, never forget Will Rogers. He was just a gum-chewing, rope-twirling cowboy. But he got to where he was telling off presidents and kings.”
• Joey DePalma: “General, I’m thinking this is the second section of the same train.”
• General Haynesworth: [ignoring DePalma] “I’ve always gone in for long-range planning. Right now, Lonesome is merely popular. Oh, very popular. But Lonesome Rhodes could be made into an influencer. A wielder of opinion. An institution positively sacred to this country, like the Washington Monument. I suspect your idealistic young lady [Jeffries] disagrees with me. But my study of history has convinced me that every strong and healthy society from the Egyptians on, the masses had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite. Let us not forget that, in TV, we have the greatest instrument for mass persuasion in the history of the world.”
General Haynesworth uses his own influence and money to promote Lonesome Rhodes, who will coach Worthington Fuller and convince his viewers to vote for him. Rhodes is installed in a New York City penthouse. Even though he is sleeping with other women, he is lonely. He proposes marriage to Jeffries, who wants to accept but is afraid that Rhodes will hurt her. Then Rhodes’s Arkansas wife shows up. She wants three thousand dollars a month to keep quiet about Rhodes and his tendency toward violence. Jeffries still thinks that she will marry Rhodes, but he judges a baton-twirling contest back in Arkansas and marries the girl who wins (she’s only seventeen). Only then does he go to Juarez, Mexico, to get a quick divorce from wife number one.
When Lonesome Rhodes starts working on Senator Fuller’s image and speaking style, the senator and his backers need some convincing that Rhodes is right for the job.
• General Haynesworth: “We’ve got to face it. Politics have entered a new stage, a television stage. Instead of long-winded public debates, the people want capsule slogans. Time for a change in the mess in Washington, more bang for the buck, punch lines, and glamor. Yes, Mr. Purvis, even glamor.”
• Purvis: [newspaper owner supporting Senator Fuller] “General Haynesworth, my papers have supported Worthington Fuller from the first day he ran for public office. He’s not a grandstander, a backslapper, or a baby kisser.”
• General Haynesworth: “That’s exactly what he’s got to become. The majority of this country don’t see eye-to-eye with him. We’ve got to find thirty-five million buyers for the product we call Worthington Fuller.”
• Purvis: “I think you underestimate the respect which people—”
• Lonesome Rhodes: “Respect? Did you ever of anybody buying any product—beer, hair rinse, tissue—because they respect it? You’ve got to be loved, man. Loved.”
Mel Miller shows up in New York City and tells Marcia Jeffries that he has just closed a book deal: He plans to publish a book about Lonesome Rhodes: Demagogue in Denim. His idea is to expose Lonesome Rhodes for the fraud that he really is. But Marcia Jeffries is the one who exposes Lonesome Rhodes. She shows up one night during his television show and turns the sound back on, when he is talking with other cast mates about how stupid his audience members are. His fans turn on him, and he loses all his endorsements and connections.
Mel Miller takes Marcia Jeffries to Lonesome Rhodes’s penthouse because he thinks she’ll never be able to make a complete and permanent break with him if she doesn’t admit to Rhodes that she was the one who turned the mike back on. She does tell him, but it is still hard for her to leave him behind. She and Mel are already outside on the pavement when Rhodes is shouting for her from his penthouse balcony, and she still has second thoughts. It’s Mel who finally convinces her that she is making the right decision.
I wish Marcia Jeffries had been a stronger character. She does make two of the most important decisions for the film’s plot: She wants to put Lonesome Rhodes on his own show (although that decision has to be approved by her uncle), and she exposes Lonesome Rhodes to his adoring public. She wavers after making that second decision, and she might have turned back to Rhodes if Mel Miller hadn’t been with her. Most of the male characters are waiting to use Rhodes’s popularity for their own gain; when they get the chance to profit from Rhodes, Jeffries is tossed aside. But perhaps the story wouldn’t be quite so compelling if Jeffries had found it easier to break with Rhodes and had done it sooner.
And I wish that A Face in the Crowd wasn’t so eerily prescient. Change 1957 to 2016 or 2020 and change all the names, and it would be the same story, but with social media added to the mix. After seeing the film, it’s hard not to wonder how this story is repeated again and again.
I watched A Face in the Crowd on a DVD from the Criterion Collection. The DVD includes three great features: an interview with Ron Briley, author of The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan: The Politics of the Post-HUAC Films; an interview with Evan Dalton Smith, who wrote a biography about Andy Griffith; and a documentary called Facing the Past (2005). All three are worth watching, but I’ll include some points only from the interview with Ron Briley because they illustrate my own point that the story in A Face in the Crowd is nothing new:
◊ Will Rogers (1879–1935) was an inspiration for the character of Lonesome Rhodes. Rogers was from Oklahoma, but he never entertained any Okies, for instance, only the elite in entertainment and in business. Rogers’s son, Will Rogers Jr., said that his father’s private image didn’t match his public image, that of an everyman, a man of the people.
◊ Arthur Godfrey (1903–1983) portrayed a down-home country image, although he was born in Manhattan. He hosted a variety show and argued with its sponsors because he didn’t always follow their instructions about what to say about their products (similar to Lonesome Rhodes).
◊ Huey Long (1893–1935), a Louisiana politician during the Great Depression, helped the poor, but he put his own political interests first. His story has been told in print and on film in a fictionalized story: All the King’s Men is the title of the novel by Robert Penn Warren and of the two films, one released in 1949 and one in 2006, that are based on Warren’s novel.
May 28, 1957, release date • Directed by Elia Kazan • Screenplay by Budd Schulberg • Based on the short story “Your Arkansas Traveler” by Budd Schulberg • Music by Tom Glazer • Edited by Gene Milford • Cinematography by Gayne Rescher, Harry Stradling Sr.
Andy Griffith as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes • Patricia Neal as Marcia Jeffries • Anthony Franciosa as Joey DePalma • Walther Matthau as Mel Miller • Lee Remick as Betty Lou Fleckum • Percy Waram as General Haynesworth • Paul McGrath as Macey • Rod Brasfield as Beanie • Marshall Neilan as Senator Worthington Fuller • Alexander Kirkland as Jim Collier • Charles Irving as S. J. Luffler • Howard Smith as J. B. Jeffries • Kay Medford as the first Mrs. Rhodes • Big Jeff Bess as Sheriff Big Jeff Bess • Henry Sharp as Abe Steiner • Cara Williams as the nurse
Distributed by Warner Bros. • Produced by Newtown Productions, Inc.